Drafting an image
Few writers create a polished piece of writing in a single pass—most start with a draft that gets refined and tightened until it’s ready for publication. It’s an incremental process that builds upon what’s already been done. As somebody who has been writing and taking pictures for a long time, I’ve found a real connection between the creation process of each craft. The most successful photographers aren’t afraid to create “draft” images that move them forward without necessarily delivering them all the way where they want to be.
When I write a blog, I start with an idea and just go with it. But before clicking Publish (or Delete), I read, revise, then re-read and re-revise more times than I can count. Likewise, when I find a scene that might be photo-worthy, I expose, compose, and click without a lot of hand wringing and analysis. But I’m not done after that first click, and I don’t particularly care if it’s not perfect. When my initial (draft) frame is ready, I pop the image up on my LCD, evaluate it, make adjustments, and click again, repeating this cycle until I’m satisfied, or until I decide there’s not an image there. (In the days before digital, the same evaluation process took place through the viewfinder with my camera on a tripod.)
Another tripod plug
It’s the tripod that makes this shoot/critique/refine process work. Much the way a computer allows writers to save, review, and improve what they’ve written (a vast improvement over the paper/pen or typewriter days), a tripod holds your scene while you decide how to make it better. Photographing sans tripod, I have to exactly recreate the previous composition before making my adjustments. But using a tripod, when I’m finished evaluating the image, the composition I just scrutinized is waiting for me right there atop my tripod, allowing each frame to improve on the previous frame.
About this image
Composition isn’t limited to the arrangement and framing of elements in a scene—it can also be the way the image handles depth and motion. For example, living in California, I just don’t get that much opportunity to photograph falling snow. So, on last week’s visit to Yosemite, when I saw the Cook’s Meadow elm tree partially obscured by heavy snowfall, I knew an image was in there, but wasn’t quite sure how to best render the millions of fluttering snowflakes between me and the tree. What shutter speed would freeze (pun unavoidable) the falling flakes, and what depth of field would best convey the falling snow? Would too much DOF be too cluttered? Would not enough DOF be too muddy?
But before solving those problems, I needed a composition. I started with my original vision, a tight, horizontal frame of the tree’s heavy interior—my “draft” image. With my camera on my tripod I tried several successively wider frames, each a slight improvement of the previous one, before jettisoning my tight horizontal plan in favor of a wider vertical composition. Though I knew right away I was on the right track, it still took a half dozen or so incrementally better frames before finally arriving at the composition you see here.
With my composition established, I set to work on the depth and shutter speed question. As good as the LCD on my camera is, I didn’t want to be making those decisions based on what I saw on a credit card size screen, but my tripod enabled me to capture a series of identically framed images, each with a different f-stop and shutter speed. Back home on my computer, I was able compare them all to one and other without being distracted by minor framing differences. I finally decided I like the version with lots of depth field.